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Christmas Gift Guide 2010 (11/26/10)
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Screams from the Cave 2008
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Night of the Living Gamer
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12 RPG Gifts in 2010
 

Twelve RPGs for Christmas
A dozen roleplaying game gift ideas for 2010

By Demian Katz, Ken Newquist, Matthew Pook, Allan Sugarbaker, Mike Sugarbaker, and Andy Vetromile

So perhaps your friends enjoy the escapism that comes from a good roleplaying game, or maybe you desperately need to forget all the holiday madness for an evening. Either way, 2010 has spawned several excellent RPGs to give (or receive) this time of year. As per our annual list-giving tradition, we've put together the following suggestions for RPG gifts:

 

Smallville
Margaret Weis Productions, $39.99 ($19.99 PDF)

SmallvilleFans of Smallville know better than to look up in the sky: Clark Kent hasn't learned to fly yet. You can, though, in the Smallville Roleplaying Game. It's everyone's chance to play a superhero or one of their cohorts in a rich and detailed setting that beautifully recreates the social dynamic of the TV show, where Kent is learning to accept his destiny as Superman. A variation of the Cortex System, characters rate their Traits and even their relations with other characters through dice. When there's back-and-forth between people, whether a debate over the Vigilante Registration Act or just a knock-down drag-out donnybrook, it becomes a game of one-upmanship, taking turns trying to get a bigger die roll than your opponent. Whoever gives up first suffers Stress – he loses the argument, or the fight ends with him half-buried in Metropolis Park, and Watchtower (the GM) gets extra dice for use against the players. Players get Plot Points for their trouble, to activate powers and get better rolls. A simple yet revolutionary system, one that maps perfectly to the feel of the TV program, and a great GMing advice section make the Smallville Roleplaying Game, well, super.

Before you soar down to your local game store, be sure to observe OgreCave's full review of Smallville.
 

Dragons at Dawn: The First Fantasy Game System
D.H. Boggs, $15.75

Dragons at DawnYou haven't seen "old school renaissance" quite like this: Daniel Boggs did extensive research to reconstruct the system Dave Arneson used for the Blackmoor campaigns that led to the invention of D&D. Perhaps inevitably, the game he's put together from that research does contain some new design work to stitch the bits together, but maybe historical reenactment isn't the point: Dragons at Dawn's text, and its plentiful snippets of Arneson wisdom, put the focus of creating the game back at the play table. It's low budget and looks it, but if you want something as raw, unpolished, and passionate as the gaming of the era to which it looks back, this one is tough to beat.
 

Apocalypse World
Vincent Baker/Lumpley Games, $28 (print/PDF combo)

Apocalypse WorldHow can a game feel so straightforward and so revolutionary at the same time? That's the zen of Vincent Baker working for you. The Dogs In The Vineyard designer is back with what's arguably his first major design since, and it's a showstopper from its arresting cover all the way out to the gaggle of indie designers who can't seem to build anything but AW hacks anymore. The game's central innovation of Moves, discrete actions that each given character type take in the system whenever they take them in the fiction, aren't just a so-brilliant-it's-obvious distillation of what traditional RPGs do. They're also a wonderful way to convey the game's band-of-sexy-nomads-against-the-creepy-unknown setting (think "Firefly: Beyond Thunderdome"). Don't sweat that price tag: this one is geared for campaigns and will be a touchstone for the next five years or more.
 

The Laundry RPG
Cubicle Seven, $39.99

Laundry RPGModern twists on Lovecraftian mythos are not an entirely new idea, but when given a healthy coating of Cold War spy missions and bureaucratic red tape. Based on the Laundry Files novels by Charles Stross, The Laundry RPG drafts players into duty within the UK's more secret division of the secret service – the folks tasked with holding back the Great Old Ones from crossing into our dimension and ending, well, everything. Laundry agents will employ the latest in occult weapons and smartphone sorcerous countermeasure programs, but the danger out in the field will still require them to be ever vigilant. Part Delta Green, part Paranoia, and all powered by a tweaked Basic Roleplaying System, this is a Cthulhu-style game fans should not miss. But if you want those out-of-pocket expenses back, you'd better keep your receipts.

Want to hear more of the organization protecting us from otherdimensional god-like beings? Regardless of your clearance, feel free to read OgreCave's Random Encounter with Gareth Hanrahan regarding The Laundry RPG.
 

FreeMarket
Luke Crane & Jared Sorenson, $75

FreeMarketFreeMarket is also in the "revolutionary" department, but you will not be finding it in the "straightforward" section. It's a bit more "throwing both birds while confounding your every expectation." On the orbital toroid FreeMarket Station, you're immortal (from backups), everything is free, and there is no law except "make people like you." It's colorful, hilarious, difficult and – let's use the word once more before the decade is out – awesome. And no, it's not really about free markets. This lavish box set with cards, full-color rules, tokens and lovely art makes a big-box-level gift for the forward-thinking roleplayer – get it while it lasts.
 

Legends of the Five Rings, Fourth Edition
Alderac Entertainment Group, $59.99

Legend of the Five Rings 4eFifteen years after John Wick's classic first edition, AEG brings the premier RPG of oriental fantasy back into print with a beautiful core book. While the core "roll and keep" mechanics remain the same, the rest of the rules have been streamlined and standardized to make for easier gameplay. Apart from making it timeline neutral to again make it easier to play, the L5R setting of Rokugan remains unchanged. The Great Clans send their samurai bushi to wage war against each other during the Summer, the courtiers to jockey for power at court during the Winter, ably supported by the shugenja who call upon the Kami for their divine aid. All the while a great evil lurks behind the Kaiu Wall in the Shadowlands, seeking to subvert the honor and heart of every samurai loyal to the Emperor. A game of manners and culture as much as conflict and war, Legends of the Five Rings is a classic '90s RPG made all the better by its contemporary redesign.
 

Blowback
Two Scooters Press, $24

BlowbackPardon me, but you got some Burn Notice on you. For those unfamiliar, this full-color indie game is about locked-out spies trying to make ends meet and keep their loved ones safe while staying out of sight and maybe figuring out who got them fired and why. The relationship mechanics, focused on favors and stress, is of a kind we've never seen before and is totally in tune with the setting, and the caper-planning minigame is satisfying too. Elizabeth Shoemaker's game makes an excellent gift for gamers who like to shoot people in the face literally and metaphorically.
 

Love in the Time of Seið
Jason Morningstar & Matthijs Holter, $10

Love in the Time of Sei̡Is it possible to be such an indie RPG that you turn the corner and become the perfect system for hardcore system-hating immersionists? Perhaps not on purpose. Matthijs Holter's game Archipelago is so unconstraining it's nearly an improv exercise, with rules that almost boil down to "safe words" for when someone would otherwise be jolted out of the fiction Рdo this differently, say more about that. It's been met with enthusiasm from some surprising corners, but its parallel character stories can make the game as disconnected as, well, a bunch of islands. Jason Morningstar of Fiasco fame borrowed it and made this scenario, a tightly interwoven and ripe-for-tragedy scenario of Viking magic and power. It's perfectly priced for a one-shot, and as a bonus all proceeds from the game's sales go to the Mines Advisory Group.
 

The Armitage Files
Pelgrane Press, $33.95

The Armitage FilesLovecraftian investigative roleplaying has always been clue orientated, and never more so in Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu by authors Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws. Now Mr Laws has pushed the use of clues even further by presenting not a fully fledged campaign, but a campaign frame built around first a set of letters, and then a series of organizations and persons, places and tomes, that either have an interest in or links to the letters. The aim of the book is not to follow a campaign, but to build a campaign around the letters, with helpful advice aplenty on how the Keeper can work with his players to improvise. In an age when the appearance of a new Cthulhu campaign is all too rare, The Armitage Files provides a new approach that can be enjoyed and created by Keeper and players of Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu alike.

Wait, you haven't found the trail yet? See OgreCave's full review of the Trail of Cthulhu core game.
 

The Dresden Files
Evil Hat Productions, Volume 1: Your Story ($49.99), Volume 2: Your World ($39.99)

Dresden Files RPGJim Butcher's The Dresden Files series of novels explores a world in which vampires, faeries, werewolves, and wizards are real, but as is traditional in the Urban Fantasy genre, remain hidden from the populace at large. In Chicago, the private eye and wizard Harry Dresden sees it as his duty to not only see that such mythical creatures remain hidden, but that humanity is kept safe from their machinations. The conceit of Evil Hat Productions' The Dresden Files RPG is that it has been written by colleagues of Harry Dresden himself, describing not only the Chicago of the books, but also how the players and GM can collaborate together to create both their characters, their relationships, and the fantastic nature of their home city together. This is perfectly in keeping with the FATE 3.0 mechanics first seen in the publisher's Spirit of the Century RPG, which encourages player character interaction with each other and the world described by the GM.
 

Space 1889: Red Sands
Pinnacle Entertainment Group, $39.99

10 Days in the AmericasIf Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs were to write an RPG, Space 1889 would be it. Originally published in 1988 by GDW, it begins with Thomas Edison inventing the "Ether Propellor" and traveling through the "luminiferous aether" to land on Mars in 1870. By 1889, the Great Powers have colonies on Mars and Venus, and Ether Flyers are probing the limits of the asteroid belt. With the Great Powers come the tensions between them, with small wars fought through proxies as they seek to expand their empires. While dinosaurs have been found on Venus, and the Martians stand in the way of colonial expansion, every right and proper gentleman and lady adheres to the prim, stiff attitudes of the Victorian Age. The original rules never quite lived up to the setting, so the appearance of a new version of Space 1889 using the Pulp action Savage Worlds rules is welcome indeed. All you need are those rules, because Red Sands is very complete, including the "Red Sands" campaign, which takes our stalwart adventurers across the Solar System. So doff your hat to the ladies and curtsey to the gentlemen, because Space 1889: Red Sands really does offer "Science Fiction Role Playing in a More Civilized Time."
 

Savage Worlds: Super Powers Companion
Pinnacle Entertainment Group, $19.99

Super Powers CompanionMost superheroes games are crunchy, rules-heavy constructs that take hours to create characters and custom-built spreadsheets to run them at the game table. Savage Worlds ditches all of that to keep things fast, fun, and furious in its Super Powers Companion. Published in a digest-format that matches the Savage Worlds Explorers Guide, the slim book contains a complete, easy-to-use, easy-to-scale super powers system, a cool chapter on building your own secret lair, and dozens of ready-to-run heroes and villains. The rules aren't crunchy enough to accommodate ultra-complex characters like Batman or Ironman, but they handle street-level and mid-level super heroics beautifully.
 

Yes, we've already given you twelve choices to pick from – but we just can't help ourselves. It's bonus round time:

Gamma World
Wizards of the Coast, $39.99

Gamma World boxed setGamma World is an apocalypse in a box, including almost everything you need to play hyperintelligent empathic trees or telekinetic mutant roach swarms adventuring their way through a world remade by the "Big Mistake". Embracing the gonzo side of post-apocalyptic fiction (rather than the more realistic Mad Max or Darwin's World), Gamma World uses streamlined D&D Fourth Edition rules to give players a fixed set of reality-warping powers, alpha mutations that flux with every combat, and omega tech to overawe their enemies. The box contains a digest-sized rulebook, two maps, monster tokens, character sheets and a few booster packs of alpha/omega power cards – but sadly, no dice. We're confident you can find a few, though.

We'd never advise you to make a "Big Mistake" in your gift giving. As proof, read our full review of Gamma World.
   

 

All of the RPG products we've listed here would make excellent giftage for the right gamer. However, if you're still searching for gift inspiration, you should have a look at our other 2010 gift lists, or even browse OgreCave's review index. You're welcome.
 

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